One of the best ways that travelers get acquainted with the local customs is by stopping into a cafe–any cafe, really–and sitting down for a coffee. It could be early in the morning, right as shops and markets are starting to open. It could be during a slow afternoon stretch where businessmen are having power lunches and ladies of leisure are gossiping. Or it could be late in the evening, when in a surprising number of countries, going out for coffee is a suitable alternative to boozing it up, or a great activity to sober you up at the end of the night.
In fact, it’s easy to learn about a place by studying the café lifestyle. For example, if you’re in the United States, in almost any city that’s not a New York or a San Francisco, you’re going to find that the way that most people do coffee is as fast as they possibly can. From driving through the window at the local Starbucks to a number of to-go options in malls and shopping centers, coffee isn’t so much an experience to be savored, but a substance to be consumed as quickly as possible. It seems that Starbucks has been responsible for introducing concepts like flavors and soy milk to suburban areas, though, and even Dunkin Donuts has had to step up their game and finally offer espresso.
One spot in the United States where the café lifestyle is slightly more thriving that isn’t New York or San Francisco is Portland, where the rain and dreary weather make it pretty much essential to cuddle up with a warm, caffeinated beverage. A lot of places in the world have coffee as a major part of keeping warm, including in The United Kingdom, where a cup of tea might be preferred, but coffee, especially Italian espresso, is finding its stronghold.
In western Europe, the culture of France and Italy depends greatly on having time to sit and have a coffee, and leisurely public beverage consumption there is a thing of legend. For example, it’s not uncommon to see restaurants in small plazas all over Rome with outdoor seating, even in the middle of a hot summer, where the locals and tourists alike are hanging out, sipping espresso or cappuccino, and perhaps snacking on a small cookie. If you go during the afternoon time where everyone it seems is in a cafe, it’s also likely that you’ll get a snack, like some peanuts, too.
The concept of snacks coming with a coffee isn’t just something that happens in the Northern Hemisphere. Down south in Argentina, a country of immigrants, cafe culture is also alive and bustling. But in Argentina, especially in the capital city of Buenos Aires, it’s about more than just sitting down and having an Italian-style coffee. There’s usually a small glass of soda water, three or four cookies, and even in some bars, some chips or a small sandwich. It’s a pretty great deal and no wonder that it seems that from the hours of two until eight in the evening, cafes all over the city are packed with everyone from young soccer fans to elderly couples hanging out and enjoying their coffee and snacks.
And that’s the thing about the café lifestyle: if you’re from a more rushed country, there’s something so amazingly freeing about having the time to just hang out and relax and observe somewhere else. Because if you’re used to coffee in a cardboard cup that doesn’t taste particularly great, it’s pretty amazing not just to taste genuinely coffee, but to actually change the pace of your life, even if it’s just for a vacation.
But as the world gets even smaller, countries influence one another even quicker, and the far-flung traditions become something more tangible. When Starbucks opened up in Buenos Aires, they made sure to include a latte with dulce de leche, the tasty local treat that’s a version of caramel. So now that Starbucks knows that is a popular item down in Argentina, they might be bringing it to the United States as a flavor, just like pumpkin or hazelnut.
So the next time you’re on the road, be it in your own country or around the world if you want to get to know a little more about the city or country you’re visiting, head to any old cafe. The best way to get acquainted, after all, is by steeping yourself in the café lifestyle. Who knows what traditions you might pick up and take home with you.